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Building Bridges: The San Quentin Experience
I literally do not have the words to describe the experience. Explaining what happened is like trying to describe to someone a person they have never met. You can’t convey the things you feel to someone else from a simple description; it’s impossible to tell them everything that you have gone through to develop the way you know that person. But I’m going to try my best.
It started with fear - fear that turned my stomach in nervous knots every time I thought about what I had been selected for. 217 students in Elaine Leeder’s Sociology 201 class, 25 chosen to go. How was I chosen?
I had my name drawn out of my friend’s hat.
That was when the fear started.
San Quentin State Prison is the oldest prison in California, as well as the only prison in the state with Death Row. It is a mix of maximum and minimum security and houses over a thousand men– all convicted criminals.
Keeping that information in mind, this was the game plan: go into San Quentin, walk through the yard while the prisoners are out, get put up in a room with prisoners and have no guards or security with you the entire time and just talk.
Not exactly an ideal Saturday for a college student.
But my curiosity was so overwhelming and the idea that I would get to meet someone who maybe had the ability to kill another human being was scary yet completely intriguing to me. There was no way I could say no.
“Just for your information – you can turn back now, but this prison has a ‘no hostage’ policy,” Professor Elaine Leeder called out to the group dressed mostly in all black, huddled in the cold weather beneath a guard tower where a man with a very visible gun stared down at us.
“What does that mean?” another student asked.
“If you are taken hostage by a prisoner, they won’t negotiate to get you back.”
Comforting words to think about as we entered the second gate to get into the actual prison, where actual prisoners would be.
The dehumanization started the instant we walked into the first building for the second security check of the day. It was a small, bleak area with metal bars acting as dividing walls. We signed in, were scanned with a handheld metal detector, and stamped with an invisible ink. If you didn’t have that stamp on the way out, you weren’t leaving. I made sure to roll my sweatshirt sleeve back.
The next step was to crowd all 24 of us into a small area meant only for 10 – a cage, if you will – that had doors controlled by a guard behind a thick wall of glass in an area that set them higher than us. We all had to hold up our ID’s before they would push the button to open the second door, filing us out into the courtyard of the prison.
Death Row and the adjustment center was what we could see on our left, there was a hospital ahead of us and a building labeled Catholic Church on our right. We walked to another guard station where Professor Leeder stopped to talk to another guard, and two men in all denim were standing waiting to greet us.
It took a moment to realize these men were prisoners, and there was a reason we weren’t allowed to wear denim on this trip.
The first man, the only one of the two who addressed us at first, introduced himself as Red, and he would be escorting us to the room where the other men were waiting. While he spoke, we were all huddled fairly close together, Elaine still getting her card and talking to another man she knew – it seemed like she knew everyone there.
“Hey! Stay away from drugs!” someone cackled out of a small window that was opened, right above the words ‘Adjustment Center’ painted onto the building. Those that heard him giggled with nervousness; the Adjustment Center was where the more “troublesome” prisoners were kept.
Yes sir, if that was where drugs get you, I have even more motive to stay away from them.
We walked along the buildings, going down a slight hill and stopping to look at what they called ‘the dungeon’. It was dank, dreary, and looked like something a horror movie would take place in – and that was just the outside. We didn’t go through the rusty metal door, we just peered through the bars into the complete darkness that held an unbearable stench, even though it hadn’t been used in years. San Quentin was renovated a couple of years ago and the dungeon was preserved to keep a historical aspect because it is believed to be the oldest building constructed in the state.
I couldn’t imagine people actually having to be in there, chained up and alone; that rusted, iron-latticed door held behind it overpowering human suffering and pain. And even though it seems hard to believe, as much as the media tells us otherwise, those inmates are human.
We continued walking around the corner until the pavement opened up into ‘The Yard’ and despite the dreary day, men in all blue were out and conversing. Even though those of us that are in the free world would prefer to stay inside in the comfort of home on such a day, I imagine the gray sky outside was a much better environment than the small prison cell those men are used to.
It felt as if every single person on that yard was staring at us, and I don’t blame them. We were an unusual sight, all decked out in black and sticking close together as we followed Red all the way to the other side of the yard. A few men called out to us, but I couldn’t process what they were saying, I was too uneasy.
Red turned to face us as he walked backwards, and easy smile on his face as he asked, “are you guys nervous?”
We giggled and looked around to see each other’s reactions.
“You guys can answer him,” Professor Leeder piped up from the back.
“The nervous laughing was my answer,” Red retorted and laughed himself, turning forward again and leading us to the small building where our meeting was to be held. It was a portable room like you would see outside school buildings, with a chain link fence surrounding it. Another prisoner was leaning against the fence and he opened the gate for us. We stepped up two metal steps and went up a ramp into the portable, greeted by two men handing out the San Quentin News and gesturing for us to sit anywhere in the inviting circle of chairs.
Two or three men were already sitting while most gathered near the front, dressed in white t-shirts and jeans, one wearing a white baseball cap waving at us. He introduced himself as Charlie as we took our seats, most of us sticking together. I noticed a probably subconscious avoidance at first of the three men already seated, but eventually all the seats filled up.
Most of the guys in blue stayed on one side of the circle, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were nervous too, or just trying to not make us feel uncomfortable. I assume it was the latter; what reason would they have to be nervous around a group of college students when all they were here to do was let us get to see the person behind the label ‘criminal’?
Red was the man in charge for the day, getting us all settled and starting the introduction around the circle. He told us his name, his real name, and a little about himself. The rest of us said just our names and the big circle was cleared in about thirty seconds.
“That was the fastest circle I’ve ever seen!” Red declared, and we chuckled again, still nervous. But these men were described as the “pillars” in the prison community, the good ones to look up to, and there had to be a reason for that.
The nerves quickly began to fade away, and by the time Professor Leeder stopped the discussion and made the men mix in with us in the circle, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.
The oldest member in the room, a man they called Doc, switched seats with Vinny and sat down next to me. He introduced himself as Larry, “but the boys here call me Doc,” he told me as I shook his soft hand. I smiled and told him my name – I wasn’t afraid at all to be in his grasp.
From then on, the men sitting between us all suddenly began to seem more and more like real people. They were educated, understanding, funny, and all had their own defined personalities. It’s impossible to truly know someone in a few hours, but they did their best.
I didn’t ask any questions. Not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I wanted to absorb what everyone else in the room was saying and watch their reactions as the walls between us all slowly began breaking down. Personal stories were shared, both from the incarcerated and the free, and I found that I was able to relate to some of the stories or emotions that were described.
Prison life isn’t like Lock Up or those other prison shows. The way the media warps these ideas is disturbing, because it’s all just playing into the stereotypes that they (the media) already created in our heads and showing us what we “want” to see.
One of the biggest ideas I took away from this experience was separating the crime from the person. These men regret what they did and there is no doubt about it. Most of them were very young, most were in for murder; some gang-related, some under the influence, and one has been in the system since he was 16 for being with someone else as they shot someone. Yes, these are bad things. But you realize quickly from the stories that these guys aren’t much different from anyone else, they just happened to take one or two more wrong turns in their lives and that landed them in prison – most already in for half of their life or more. The crimes committed don’t only affect the victim or the victim’s families; they can equally affect the person who committed the crime and their families for even longer. I’m not saying this to justify the crime, but as one man described, “it was just one instant that ruined the rest of my life.”
I wish I could remember every single thing that was said, and the entire time I was desperate for a pen and paper so I could write down what I was feeling, thinking, or hearing. Like I said, it isn’t an easy thing to describe what I and surely the other students were experiencing through this process.
At one point, Charlie described how he was shackled for hours – days, while the court decided whether or not he could be housed in an adult institution at the age of 16. The pain and loneliness he described was heartbreaking; the need for someone, something, anything to be there for him. “I didn’t care if it was a person or a cockroach running across the floor, I needed something.” The pain was visible in the way he he explained it to us, and the idea that such a carefree, amusing guy could be put through something so horrible made me sick.
But these men didn’t bring us there to make us feel sorry for them, and Professor Leeder wasn’t giving us this opportunity just so we would walk away feeling sad. We found that these men were indeed human – quite good humans, in fact. I learned that like the schools losing money in California, the prisons were losing money as well; money from programs that supported at rehabilitation rather than punishment. Rehabilitation is what needs to be in place in prisons if we want to have a better society in the future, we can’t simply send people away for mistakes (big or small) and dismiss them from society – they need to be rehabilitated or resocialized whenever possible.
San Quentin is a prison unlike any other for many reasons. Yes it has Death Row, but it also has a completely volunteer-based college program. I believe most of the men in the T.R.U.S.T. were working on or already had a college degree. San Quentin offers many rehabilitation programs including ones for drug rehab, a huge problem today, and to have them cut would be a great loss. The state is looking to release 40,000 inmates in the near future and that idea might seem scary to a lot of people, but with the programs like T.R.U.S.T. among many others that focus on positive actions and rehabilitating, it should be easy to choose which inmates could to be released. Cutting the programs won’t do any good for anyone.
The simple thing that anyone can do that I find extremely important is to pay attention to propositions having to do with prisons and not voting for the ones that take even more money away. California is in a horrible budget crisis, we all know that. But taking away money from schools and prisons, which seem to be to most targeted, is not going to help the state.
I believe every person who gets the chance to meet the men of T.R.U.S.T. have a new perspective on things, whether it be on the prison system or our entire society. Social change is what the world could use right about now, and we’ve seen from the past that it isn’t a very easy thing to make happen. But we are the next generation, about to take over the world whether we like it or not. We need to be educated on what is wrong in society and make the effort to change it. If we don’t, who will?
I’m not trying to preach to anyone, just like the men weren’t trying to preach to us, I just want those who didn’t have the experience to be informed to the best of my ability.
All in all, I wish I could place into you all the experience I had with the men of the San Quentin T.R.U.S.T. so you could see exactly what it’s like to have stereotypes broken and see someone transform right before your eyes simply by listening to what they had to say. T.R.U.S.T.’s motto is “building a bridge from the inside out,” and that is exactly what happened that cold Saturday morning.
We all shook the men’s hands as we left, and I thanked them all sincerely, wishing I could express just how much they affected me that day. Our group walked back out, mingling with a few of the men as we made our way back across the yard. This time when someone in the yard called out, we responded easily, suddenly excited to wave and smile at them. Our transformation was obvious, even to us, and it was a good feeling.
Just before leaving the yard area, a guard in green stopped us and asked one of the men walking with us who was leading this group. Professor Leeder charged up to the front and assured him she was the brown card holder. The guard’s resolve was not going to break, I could see that. He gave us all a hard stare, but I knew that was his job.
“He has to make sure we don’t keep any of you here,” our T.R.U.S.T. friend joked as the guard called in to make sure we were supposed to be there, counting us a few times as the other men we were with separated from us. Finally he signaled up to the guard in the tower, who was once again staring down at us with rifle in hand, that we were clear to go. Red walked us back to the courtyard where he had met us and soon we had to say goodbye. We went back through the cage, this time 10 at a time like we were supposed to, and then got out invisible stamps checked.
Everyone made it out with no problems and suddenly, the surreal experience was over. No one was mugged, no one was hurt, no one was even looked at in the wrong way. We were never going to have the chance to be in San Quentin again – at least not in the same way. We were back to civilization, where unlike the men inside, we were free to go.